In pre-modern and modern societies, there has been a hierarchy of command of which everyone must adhere to. In order for this system to operate, there must be someone in charge or otherwise known as authority. According to Weber, authority is power accepted as legitimate by those subjected to it. Weber outlines three forms of authority in modern societies: traditional, charismatic, and rational-legal. These forms of authority are ideal pure types that are rarely “pure” in real life.
Rational-legal authority is belief in the legality of patterns of standard rules and the right of those elevated to authority under such rules to issue commands. Authority is held by legally established impersonal orders and extends to people only by virtue of offices they hold. The power of government officials is determined by the offices to which they are appointed or elected because of their individual qualifications. As long as individuals hold these offices, they have a certain amount of power, but once they leave office, their rational-legal authority is lost
There are various ways that rational-legal authority could develop. Systems of laws and regulation develop in many societies and there are many different principles of legality that could occur. With the development of a rational-legal system, there is likely to be a political system which becomes rationalized in a similar way. Associated with political systems are constitutions, written documents, and established offices, regularized modes of representation, regular elections and political procedures. These are developed in opposition to earlier systems such as monarchies or other traditional forms, where there are no well developed set of rules.
As political systems develop in a rational manner, authority takes on a legal form. Those who govern either have or appear to have a legitimate legal right to do so. Those who are subordinate within this system accept the legality of the rulers, believing in the right of those who have legitimate rights to exercise power. Those with the power then exercise power based on this right of legitimacy.
Rational-legal authority may be challenged by those who are subordinate but this challenge is unlikely to result in changes in the nature of the system very quickly. According to Weber, such power struggles could be based on ethnicity, nationalism, not classism, and are mostly political struggles.
Weber’s examination of legitimate authority led him to define an ideal-type bureaucracy. An ideal-type is a rationally and systematically constructed pure type of action, which can rarely taken place in reality and used as a measuring tool to determine the similarity between actual social institutions and defined ones. The ideal-type bureaucracy Weber developed incorporated hierarchy, impersonality, written rules of conduct, promotion based on achievement, specialized division of labor, and efficiency. Information flows up the chain of command and directives flow down, according to Weber’s model. Impersonal rules explicitly define duties, responsibilities, operating procedures, and rules of conduct.
Individual offices are highly specialized, and appointments are made one the basis of qualifications rather than ascribed status. Working together, these characteristics are designed to promote the collective goals of the organization. This ideal-type bureaucracy was intended to promote economic growth and prosperity. Many of its concepts are echoed in today’s capitalist and political systems.
Traditional authority is authority in which the legitimacy of the authority figure is based around custom. Legitimacy and power to control is handed down from the past and this power can be exercised in quite dictatorial ways. This is the type of authority in which the traditional rights of a powerful and dominant individual or group are accepted, or at least not challenged, by subordinate individuals. These could be religious, sacred, or spiritual forms, a well established and slowly changing culture, or tribal, family, or clan type structures.
The dominant individual could be a priest, clan leader, family head, or some other patriarchal figure, or dominant elite might govern. In many cases, traditional authority is supported by myths or connection to the sacred, social artifacts such as a cross or flag, and by structures and institutions which perpetuate this authority. Historically, traditional authority has been the most common form among governments. An example of this is the kings and queens in the English monarchy system, which must belong to certain families in order to obtain their positions.
Traditional authority often dominated pre-modern societies. It is based on the belief in the sanctity of tradition, of “the eternal yesterday.” Because of the shift in human motivation, it is often difficult for modern individuals to conceive of the hold that tradition had in pre-modern societies.
According to Weber, traditional authority is a means by which inequality is created and preserved. If no one challenges the authority of the traditional leader or group, the leader is likely to remain dominant. Also, for him, traditional authority blocks the development of rational-legal forms of authority, a viewpoint he was particularly partial to.
Charismatic authority exists when the control of others is based on an individual’s personal characteristics, such as extraordinary ethical, heroic, or religious virtuosity. Charismatic leaders are obeyed because people feel a strong emotional bond to them. Hitler, Gandhi, Napoleon, and Julius Caesar were all charismatic leaders. Whether such powers actually exist is irrelevant; the fact that followers believe that such powers exist is what is important.
Weber considers charisma to be a driving and creative force which surges through traditional authority and established rules. The sole basis of charismatic authority is the recognition or acceptance of the claims of the leader by the followers. Charismatic authority can be revolutionary in nature, challenging traditional authority and sometimes rational-legal. This type of authority could easily degenerate into traditional authority in which the power is exercised by those who surround the charismatic leader.
Charismatic authority is the antithesis of routine activities and represents the desire for disruption and change of the prevailing social order. It is a necessary part of the dialectic between the human need for structure and the equally human need for variation and innovation in society. Charismatic authority is different from rational or traditional authority in that it develops not from established orders or traditions, but rather from the special trust the charismatic leader induces in his followers, the peculiar powers he exhibits, and the unique qualities he possesses. According to Weber, it is difficult for charismatic leaders to maintain their authority because followers must continue to legitimize this authority. There is a need for the charismatic leader to constantly exhibit leadership performance to his followers to reinforce the legitimacy of his authority.
The basis of Weber’s distinction between power and authority is that power is the ability to impose one’s will on another, regardless of the other’s wishes, and despite any resistance he may offer. Power is therefore relational; it requires one person to dominate, and the other to submit. This assumes that one person will acquiesce, co-operate with or consent to the domination of the other, and this cannot be true of all relationships. The act of issuing a command does not presuppose obedience. Weber argues that an individual can exercise power in three ways: through direct physical power, by reward and punishment and by the influence of opinion. The exercise of power is more likely to be indirect and coercive: a combination of rewarding and punishing through the use of argument, debate and rhetoric.
Authority, by comparison, is a quality that enhances power, rather than being itself a form of power. The word “authority” comes from the verb “to authorize”; therefore an individual’s power must be authorized by the group in order for it to be legitimate. An individual is considered an authority because of his technical expertise, combined with his ability to communicate effectively with the group. The individual in authority is the one who is primary in the group, controlling certain aspects of what the other group members do and say, and perhaps even what and how they think.